Mali often makes headlines because of the challenges it faces, from poverty to Islamist insurgency. The Canadian Armed Forces recently wrapped up a mission that lasted more than a year in support of UN peacekeeping efforts.
Although establishing a nation free of conflict may be daunting task, a Mali-born Vancouver resident is seeking to bring about positive change by introducing African “superfoods” to the world while improving the lives of female farmers through direct trade.
Oumar Barou Togola is a founder of Farafena, a social enterprise that takes its name from the word for Africa in Bambara, the national language of Mali. Born in Bamako, the country’s capital, he remembers from his childhood lineups of women waiting outside of his family’s home to see his mom; a trained midwife, she would deliver babies for free. His father, meanwhile, was a hydrologist for the United Nations, travelling the world and showing people how to get clean water.
Barou Togola came to B.C. in 2000 to finish high school on Vancouver Island before studying business administration in university. He went on to work at a financial firm, but his heart wasn’t in it.
He had a conversation with his parents, who now live in the village of N’Tabacoro and who have always been focused on helping people and communities. They talked about the possibility of farming and of bringing African foods to Canada. Then they thought of taking that idea one step further by working with people who are already growing certain crops but don’t have a market for them.
Teaming up with close friend Dylan Beechey to launch Farafena, Barou Togola knew he wanted to work with women, in particular, for a few reasons.
“I saw the strength in my mother growing up,” Barou Togola says in an interview at Farafena’s West Broadway office. “And we see on a daily basis what women do in Africa. They’re the first to get up and the last to go to bed. They walk tens of kilometres [with their crops] to go to markets and come back, then look after their kids, feed them, put them to sleep. Agriculture is one of biggest resources in Africa. Farming is mainly done by women, and women are some of the poorest people. It doesn’t make sense.
“Sixty percent of Africa is under 25,” he adds. “Looking at that, this is a very young continent. Who are the educators? They’re women. They’re mothers. By giving them the tools to empower children to give them confidence, this continent could be a very different place in the near future. Working with women so they can have time and money and resources to spend more time with their kids and educate the next generation that would be better off: that’s what we want to do. And what better way to do it than the power of food?”
Currently, Farafena carries several African-grown products that are available at Canadian grocery stores.
One is fonio, a drought-resistant crop that some people call the next quinoa. Gluten-free, it’s considered a superfood because it contains amino acids as well as zinc, iron, calcium, and other nutrients.
You cook it just as you would couscous or quinoa. It has a nutty flavour and can be used in tabbouleh or as a replacement for rice. It can be milled into a flour for baking. (Barou Togola says the Bill Gates Foundation has expressed interest in planting the grain in other countries. “This grain could essentially save millions of people in Africa,” he says. “It could fight malnutrition. It needs just a tiny amount of water to grow.”)
Moringa leaf powder is another. Moringa is a plant that’s known as the miracle tree or drumstick tree. Matcha-green in colour, the powder comes from dried leaves. The taste is somewhat similar to matcha as well: bitter and slightly sweet. High in iron, it can be added to smoothies, salad dressings, or sauces.
Then there is baobab fruit powder. The fruit from the baobab tree is an oblong pod that hangs upside down; within it is a powder that’s abundant in vitamins B and C as well as potassium, calcium, magnesium, fibre, and protein. Some people describe its tart, citrusy taste as that of a sour mango, well suited for smoothies, yogurt, or oatmeal.
Farafena now works with about 1,000 women from nine different villages, paying them directly for the nutrient-dense crops they grow. As a result, these women have been able to start microbusinesses, build homes for their families, and educate their kids. Barou Togola says the partnership boosts the well-being of entire villages while supporting traditional farming practices.
“To better understand the impact is to look at the community,” Barou Togola says. “Things have changed for the better because these people are feeling that they’ve got their dignity back. “Four or five years ago, these women would take fonio or whatever products they could process to the local market. A hundred other women were doing the same thing; they made nothing. At the end of the day, if they didn’t sell it, aggregators would come and tell them, ‘We’ll take the product, sell it, and pay you back.’ Then they’d never come back with the money. Sometimes these women had to walk 10 kilometres back home and their kids were hungry but they couldn’t buy them anything. Seeing how much these people were suffering, we had to do something.”
For consumers to get a sense of where the superfoods come from and who grew them, each Farafena package has the name and photo of the female farmer on it. On a package of fonio, for example, might be an image of Karito Mariko, who wears a beautiful head scarf and colourful traditional African jewellery. You can go to the Farafena website and click on that same photo to learn more about her.
Farafena has expanded across Canada, with products available in more than 600 grocery stores such as Loblaws, Whole Foods, and Superstore. It’s looking to enter the U.S. market.
“It’s time to start giving back the power and respect that women deserve in our society,” Barou Togola says. “Lack of equality is not an African issue. It’s a global issue.”